Sing a Song at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge

Like country music? Read an excerpt from my Memoir of Sorts: The Man Who Talks to Strangers

IT WAS THE early 1970s, and we had been assigned to write and photograph a magazine article on a brand new sound that was rushing out of Nashville like a mighty wind sweeping up every musical note that had been kicked aside by the British invasion.

Hank Williams is not with us anymore.

The Beatles are.

The King is dead.

Long live the King.

Country music had been dead for almost ten years. The only hit song coming out of Nashville during the 1960s, according to an executive at RCA, was “The Three Bells” by Jim Ed Brown and his two sisters, Bonnie and Maxine.

By 1970s, the songs were starting to light up the town again. Some people were even calling Nashville “Music City.” And everywhere we went, we could hear jukeboxes playing the songs of Johnny Cash and Merle Kilgore, Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall, Porter Waggoner, and Willie Nelson. There was even a faint hint of Dolly Parton’s voice.

It was the beginning of the golden era of country music, the Nashville Sound was picking up steam, and the singers and songwriters, sooner or later, all came wandering through Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge down on Lower Broadway.

It wasn’t much of a place. It was always dark. Beer signs were lit with neon The hit makers of country music were all seated at tables beside the homeless, the down and out, the dreamers, those who thought they were one song and one break away from reaching the microphone on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

In fact, every taxi driver, waiter, waitress, bellman, and maid we met had a song to sing and another one they were writing. It was easy for them to think that they could write, record, or sing a hit. They sat in a corner, ate a few crumbs of fried chicken or a bowl of chili, and drank a beer, knowing all the while that just across the back alley from the back door of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge was the back door of the Opry.

Crawford and I stood late at night in the alley and hear the songs coming from the old Ryman Auditorium. The only other sounds were singers rushing from the Ryman to Tootsie’s for a beer or rushing from Tootsie’s, frantically trying to reach the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in time to hear their names announced.

Nobody ever ran late.

Big hats.

Old boots.

Faded jeans.

A guitar.

And the right song.

That’s all it took to become a star in Nashville.

The most notorious beer joint in town had originally been named “Mom’s.” But Tootsie Bess bought the place in the 1960s and had it painted. For whatever reason, and certainly without her blessing, the place was painted a deep purple and would forever be known as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.

Tootsie was the Mother Superior of the great unwashed in Nashville. She saw those looking for a gig or hoping for a hit, and she refused to let them go hungry. She kept them fed, with a little beer in their belly, even when they didn’t have a dime in their pockets.

Some made it big. Most just faded away.

Back behind the counter, Tootsie had a cigar box filled with IOUs. Every year, members of the Grand Ole Opry would get together, pass the hat, and pay off the IOUs so Tootsie wouldn’t lose any money. She had been good to many of them during the lean years as well.

We met Rocky Fitch in Tootsie’s one night, and he thought he might have a chance. He was thirty-five but looked a lot older. He told us, “I’ve written about five-hundred songs. I’ve got some good stuff coming out. I’ve had some big hits. Trouble is, when I wrote ‘em, I was down on my luck and had to sell ‘em cheap. So I didn’t get any credit for them.”

Jim was slumped in the corner. He was a truck driver who had just rolled into town from Chattanooga. He had a big voice and a quick smile. He said, “I play the five-string banjo, and I’ve been trying to get on the Opry for thirty years. But when I pick, I can’t sing, and when I sing, I can’t pick.”

Sad stories. Nashville was full of sad stories.

But the dream was there. It was always alive in Tootsie’s.

After all, Mel Tillis, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Patsy Cline had sat at those tables when nobody had ever heard of them. Willie was brand new in Nashville and wandered into a back room in Tootsie’s where Steve Bess, Jimmy Day, and Buddy Emmons were jamming. They listened to him play, heard a few of his songs, and set him up for an audition with Ray Price. Willie became a member of the Cherokee Cowboys and wrote some of Price’s biggest hits–like “Hello Walls.”

Tom T. Hall spent a lot of time with Bobby Bare in Tootsie’s. Tom T. told me, “Bobby and I kept each other in business. I’d write the songs. He sung them. We both made a right good living.”

So many songwriters–good or bad, in town to stay or just passing through, on top or trying to persuade someone to listen to their songs hung out in the Orchid Lounge so long that Bobby Bare once said, “If they had dropped a bomb on Tootsie’s at the time, the music industry would’ve gone hungry for songs for a while.”

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